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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Native Voices Chippewa Songs

[7428] Anonymous, Rocky Boy (Stone Child), a Chippewa Chief, Three-Quarter Length, Standing, Dressed in Ornate Costume (n.d.), courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Still Pictures Branch.

Frances Densmore collected these Chippewa songs between 1907 and 1909. The songs reflect the culture of the Chippewa peoples who once lived along the shores of Lake Huron and Lake Superior, across Minnesota, and west to North Dakota. The Chippewa are Algonquian Indians; that is, they speak a language that is related to those others classified as part of the central Algonquian group. Chippewa and Ojibwa are the same word pronounced differently. They are composed of numerous tribes and bands, including the Turtle Mountain Band of which Louise Erdrich is a member. The Chippewa were the largest Great Lakes tribe and one of the most powerful tribes in North America. Because the Chippewa did not possess good farming lands, white settlement in their homelands was minimal, and hence they have been able to maintain much of their language and culture. Chippewa culture varies with geographic location: on the plains, for example, the Chippewa hunted buffalo. Most Ojibwe lived in the northern Great Lakes region and cultivated crops and supplemented their diet with hunting and gathering. They were skilled hunters, trappers, and fishers. The lakes and the spirits of the lake—the underwater manitos—became a central part of their cosmology.

Like other Algonquian peoples, the Chippewa lived in tipis. Theirs were dome-shaped and were made of birch bark that could be rolled up for easy transportation. Clothing was made out of buckskin and furs that were dyed. Today the Chippewa are renowned for their beautiful beadwork, particularly their beaded bandolier bags, named for the bandolier, an ammunition belt worn over the shoulder and across the chest. These decorative bags served many utilitarian purposes. The Ojibwa often passed the time and entertained each other with stories and songs such as the ones in The Norton Anthology of American Literature.

It is important to remember that while some songs are sacred and were both received and sung in a ceremonial context, others were not. As Frances Densmore, who collected a wide variety of songs among the Chippewa, explained in her 1915 article in The Musical Quarterly: “Among the Chippewa it was the custom for medicine men to build ‘nests’ in the trees, where they waited, fasting, until they secured a dream and its song. A man was very proud of a song received in this manner. . . . A medicine man always sang his principal dream song and related the dream before he began to treat a sick person.” For Densmore, love songs were wholly removed from this more sacred and traditional context. She identified three levels of songs: “First, there still remain some of the old songs, sung by the old singers. . . . Second, there are old ceremonial and medicine songs belonging to men now dead, but which can be sung, and sung with reasonable correctness, by men who heard them given by their owners. . . . Third, there are comparatively modern songs, which represent a transitional culture. If differentiated from the really old songs, these are not devoid of interest, though it is scarcely worth while to collect a great many of them.” Love songs were in this third “modern” category.

Teaching Tips

  • Play your students some of the music from the Chippewa songs in the archive. What is the tone of the music? How does it compare to the tone of the Chippewa songs in The Norton Anthology of American Literature? Using Densmore’s categories as a starting point, have students create their own categories for the types of music.


  • Early musicologist Frances Densmore has this to say about the thirty love songs she recorded: “Only one was inspired by happiness. All these songs were comparatively modern. Too frequently the words contained the information that the singer intended to drown disappointment in liquor. On moonlight nights one hears wailing songs of this kind issuing from the barred windows of the agency guardhouse. Let us hope that future students of Indian music will pass them by. Weird they are, and melodious they may be, but representative of true Indian character they assuredly are not.” Ask students to refute Densmore’s claim. Upon what assumptions is it based? What does she mean by “true Indian character”? Why does she think that these songs would be less worth collecting?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Musicologist Frances Densmore claims that the Chippewa love songs are “comparatively modern songs, which represent a transitional culture.” Where do you see aspects of tra-ditional Chippewa culture in these songs? Where do you see European American influences?
  2. Comprehension: What is the tone of each of the songs? How does the tone compare to love songs you hear on the radio?
  3. Comprehension: Why are there several Chippewa songs about Sioux women? What do Sioux women represent?
  4. Context: Compare the more whimsical Chippewa love songs to the more ceremonial Ghost Dance songs. What rhythmic or linguistic clues help the reader know that the Ghost Dance songs are more serious in nature?
  5. Context: How are women represented in the songs? To what extent are these representations consonant with traditional Western stereotypes about women, and to what extent do they challenge those stereotypes?
  6. Context: Compare the vision of love presented in the Chippewa love songs with that in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine or The Bingo Palace. What does Lipsha mean by love?
  7. Exploration: During the Renaissance, the Italian poet Petrarch refined a series of conceits that came to epitomize the way Western poets talked about the beloved. These include the idea of love as a battle or hunt, the power of the beloved’s gaze being like a ray, the beauty of the beloved’s person being like flowers or jewels, and the comparison of the beloved to a sun or star. Identify and examine Chippewa love conventions.
  8. Exploration: Love is often depicted as a battle or hunt, in which the true test of passion comes in the pursuit. Compare the tension between the singer and the beloved in English poet Thomas Wyatt’s “Whoso List to Hunt” and Chippewa poet Louise Erdrich’s “Jacklight.”

Selected Archive Items

[7428] Anonymous, Rocky Boy (Stone Child), A Chippewa Chief, Three-Quarter Length, Standing, Dressed in Ornate Costume (n.d.),
courtesy of the National Archives, Still Pictures Branch.

Native American “Chief Songs” were sung by community members in praise of and to their chief. Fancy dress such as the outfit worn by Rocky Boy (Stone Child) reinforces authority and status in American Indian cultures. Rocky Boy was a famous chief, and the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in Montana is named after him.

[9087] Cal Scott, Music of Chippewa Songs (2002),
courtesy of Cal Scott Music.

This is a sound recording of the music for the Chippewa songs featured in The Norton Anthology of American Literature.

[9106] Thomas Wyatt, “Whoso List to Hunt,” from The Poems of Sir Thomas Wiat (1913),
courtesy of University of London Press.

English poet Thomas Wyatt here reflects on the relationship between hunting and loving, a relationship that is also posed in contemporary poems like “Jacklight” by Louise Erdrich.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6